Sustaining Air: The Life of Larry Eigner (Jennifer Bartlett)  

Reviewed by Michael Northen

For decades, students of literature have read about the Black Mountain and the school of projectivist verse. Led by Charles Olson, Black Mountain included such familiar names as Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan. There is one member of the group, however, that even many of those well-read in poetry do not know about: Larry Eigner. Eigner is arguably the member of the group who helped to bridge the transformation of poetry from the projectivist verse that the group created to the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry that followed it. Moreover, he had cerebral palsy. This year, however, Larry Eigner may finally be getting his due with the publication of the first full-length biography of his life, Sustaining Air, by Jennifer Bartlett. It is a book whose importance to disability poetry is hard to underestimate.

Bartlett is well-positioned to write this book. Her father, Lee Bartlett, was a scholar of the Black Mountain School; she is a poet; and she has cerebral palsy. She co-edited the anthology Beauty is a Verb that included a selection of Eigner’s poetry and, with George Hart, selected a number of Eigner’s letters to appear in Poetry magazine. Most recently, together with Hart, she edited Momentous Inconclusions: The Life and Work of Larry Eigner (University of New Mexico Press, 2020). It should be little surprise that Bartlett’s efforts eventually led to the publication of Eigner’s biography.

Bartlett’s approach, as she tells her readers in her introduction, is to look at this book as “one poet speaking to another.” She does not set out to provide an exhaustive account of Eigner’s life or an analysis of his poetry. This approach benefits both readers who have never heard of Eigner and those who have some familiarity with his work since, Eigner scholars aside, very little of what she has in store to tell them will be common knowledge. She does acknowledge, however, that she is writing the biography with disability justice in mind. In particular:

The biography also means to clarify the myths that have surrounded Eigner’s life and disability: He couldn’t walk. He could. He couldn’t write by hand. He did. He didn’t have any kind of formal education or leave his house until he moved to Berkeley in the late 1970’s. (p. xv, emphasis in original)

One of the devices the book provides to help dispel those myths and provide readers with some of the basics of  Eigner’s life is the inclusion of “Larry Eigner’s Calendar,” a chronology compiled by George Hart that lists the major events of Eigner’s life from his birth in 1927 to his death in 1996. It also prepares the reader for the amazing number of poets, editors, and publishers that will be met in the pages that follow.

From an early age, Eigner was interested in poetry and experimented with his own poems. The real catalyst for his poetic career, however, came in 1948 when he heard a fifteen-minute radio program hosted by Cid Corman called This is Poetry. Eigner was immediately taken with the program. After listening to Corman read a Yeats poem, Eigner wrote to Corman disagreeing with the way that it had been read. Corman responded to Eigner’s note and the two began a forty-year correspondence. As Bartlett points out, Corman’s influence on Eigner’s career is incalculable. Corman was in touch with poets like Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, all of whom Eigner eventually met as a result of the correspondence and who would be pivotal to Eigner’s conception of poetry. Corman also became a mentor to Eigner, reading and critiquing his work.

During this time, Eigner remained living in Swampscott with his parents, writing from his front porch until his move to Berkeley, California in 1978. Bartlett chronicles his ever-increasing circle of poetic relationships. He attended readings and was visited in his own home by an array of poets. Most significantly for the development of his own work these included Denise Levertov and Charles Olson, and Jonathan Williams, who became Eigner’s most assiduous publisher. The move to San Francisco, after the death of his father, marked a sea change in Eigner’s poetic career. Initially living in a group home for people with disabilities, Eigner moved into his own house in Berkeley with caretaker Robert Grenier and his wife. The new location introduced him to many of the West Coast poets that he’d had little contact with who visited him and read with him. After Eigner’s death, Grenier put about gathering the many small books of poetry published by Williams and others, eventually compiling them into The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner in 2010.

A remarkable thing about Sustaining Air is the extent to which it is able to draw on Eigner’s own words.  One of the effects of Eigner’s cerebral palsy was that he had difficulty speaking and it was frequently difficult for others–except those closest to him–to understand him. However, he was a prodigious letter writer. (See Letters to Jargon.) As an Eigner scholar, Bartlett has taken advantage of the huge cache of letters deposited in varied locations throughout the United States. Her choice to use these letters was born of necessity since Eigner’s poetry itself reveals very little about his personal life and Eigner himself resisted any attempt to connect his work as a poet to his cerebral palsy. A look at the extensive “Notes” at the end of the book reveals the considerable amount of work involved in putting the information gleaned from these letters into a coherent narrative. Typical of these “Notes” are:

        16. Larry Eigner to Jonathan Williams, February 21, 1961, letter 70 in Eigner and
Williams, Letters to Jargon, 100.
        17. Larry Eigner to Denise Levertov, December 1, 1961, Denise Levertov papers,

While these examples may not excite the casual reader, they are invaluable for anyone doing serious research on Eigner. They also serve as a template for the kind of efforts that need to be undertaken by writers who might want to do the important work of exploring the lives and oeuvre of other disabled writers.

Another problem facing Bartlett was reproducing the typography of Eigner’s poems. In 1941, for his bar mitzvah, Eigner received the gift of a Royal typewriter. It was to be the instrument on which he composed his poetry for the remainder of his life. As he developed his own objectivist theory of poetry, complex spacing and line breaks became essential features of his work. Eigner would constantly tinker with the poems even after they were accepted for publication, changing how they appeared on the page. In an attempt to be faithful to the poems as Eigner would have wanted them to be seen, Bartlett has tried to replicate them by using a Courier font that comes close to their original appearance. For example, in his poem “again dawn”

the sky dropped

         its invisible whiteness

                             we saw     pass out


                                     empty the blue


                               our summer

                                                     on the ground

                like last night another


                         in fragments   (p. 86)

The contrast between these poems and the Warnac Pro font that the remainder of Sustaining Air is published in testify to Bartlett’s and the University of Alabama Press’s diligence in reproducing Eigner’s work. Indeed, as one reads through these embedded poems, they give a reader the feeling that they are a participant in opening an old manuscript to rescue work from the past. They also give the reader a visual aid in following the continuing development of Eigner’s poetics.

While Bartlett is out to give Eigner the recognition that he deserves, Sustaining Air is not a hagiography.  Eigner could be irascible and difficult at times. He could also be inconsiderate. At one point, he sent Robert Creeley a pile of poems, expecting Creeley to do the work of shaping them all into a manuscript and publishing them.

In addition to conveying Eigner’s personality, Bartlett attempts to give readers some sense of how Eigner was continually developing as a poet. She notes:

Eigner was invested in the poem’s pattern of energy, in its “flow from writer to reader, speaker to listener, if not an exchange between them.” The poet could create the rhythm of a poem through his breath; the reader would have to use intuition to follow the poem’s progression rather than rely on grammar. (p. 40)

This meant leaving out words that Eigner considered unnecessary and frequently required him to depart from ordinary speech, creating a new syntax. Bartlett suggests that adopting Olson’s concept of the poem as a field liberated Eigner from the constraints of conventional poetry such as rhyme, rhythm, and left-alignment on the page, allowing him to create his own freedom. While he could not totally “free himself” from the constraints of walkers or needing others for assistance, he could be free in his poetry.

During the early 1950’s when Eigner was developing his own poetic views, confessional poetry in the form of work by writers like Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop was on the rise. Lowell’s poetry centered around personal narrative and it was this approach that Eigner’s poetry pushed back against. Eigner’s poems are notably devoid of reference to his personal life and to his cerebral palsy. He avoided situations where he would be interacting with or part of a group of other disabled individuals and was resentful when poets like William Carlos Williams suggested there was any link between the way that Eigner wrote and his cerebral palsy. Though Eigner had been enamored of Olson’s conception of poetry long before he was acquainted with Lowell’s, it can also be argued that one factor in his rejection of the confessional approach was just that it would have required him to write about his own physical condition.

Bartlett is aware that for many in her reading audience, the embracing of one’s identity as a disabled poet is almost prerequisite to their work being read, but she does not try to sugar-coat Eigner’s attitude toward disability:

…because of the era in which he grew up, and his family dynamic, Eigner could not avoid having some internalized ableism or prejudice against people with disabilities. Part of the way he dealt with this was by distancing himself from other disabled people. (p. 56)

Given the parallels that might be drawn between her own work and Eigner’s, this candor is to Bartlett’s credit. The use of her term ableism in this context, however, does open the door to discussing the degree to which anachronism can creep into evaluating the work of past writers. Unlike physical objects  like cell phones that clearly did not exist in the 1950’s, there is a tendency to insert terms such as ableism that had no existence prior to their conception into an evaluation of people’s behavior in a prior time. It is safe to say that no one living during Eigner’s earlier years, regardless of their attitude toward Eigner’s behavior, would have called it ableism. The judiciousness of retroactively applying such terms is worth considering since, undoubtedly, 50 years from now those of us presently writing will likely be judged negatively through the use of terms and concepts that we cannot even conceive of as existing.

In addition to providing the details of Eigner’s life, Sustaining Air gives readers an important snapshot of the lives of the Black Mountain Poets. If there are those who still think of Emily Dickinson cloistered in  her home in Amherst as the image of a poet, Bartlett’s account of the relationship among Olson, Creeley, Levertov, and Duncan calls that picture into question. The importance of community, both its inventiveness and its frictions, on all of those poets–and on Eigner in particular–cannot be overstated. It was only through the continued efforts of his friends that Eigner’s work ended up being included in Donald Allen’s now canonical The New American Poetry, 1945-60, a work that insured the inclusion of his name in the history of twentieth century poetry. Sustaining Air is likely to give readers a new perspective on what a poet’s life involves.

Eigner’s move to San Francisco impacted both his personal life and his poetry. His brother Richard was living there and nearby Berkeley was both the center of the new independent living movement and a hotbed of poetry. An attempt to move Larry into an Independent Living Center proved disastrous. Bartlett explains:

Growing up in the quiet, sheltered environment of his parents’ house, Eigner couldn’t stand the noise…Eigner never had to deal with or tolerate other people’s habits. After being cared for all of his life, and bound by his mother’s restrictions, he didn’t have the skill needed to relate to living with strangers. (p. 120)

Fortunately for Eigner, at about the time he made his move, his friend and fellow poet Robert Grenier also moved to San Francisco with his partner, Kathleen Frumkin. They began to take over Eigner’s care and eventually Richard bought a large house in Berkeley, allowing Grenier and his family to live there free if they continued Eigner’s care. This had a huge impact on Eigner’s writing. Frumkin helped organize all of Eigner’s work while Grenier brought in a constant stream of other poets to visit and provided opportunities for Eigner to read his work.

It was a reciprocal relationship. Grenier was greatly influenced by Eigner’s poetry. After Olson’s death in 1970, the projectivist movement had lost its center and was becoming replaced by what was eventually known as the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school. This new generation, the Language poets, can arguably trace their origins back to Grenier’s 1971 essay, “On Speech.” It was an effort to totally divorce poetry from the Wordsworthian conception of poetry as a flow from writer to reader. Grenier felt that of all those who had followed Olson’s vision, Eigner’s poetry came closest to demonstrating what poetry should be.

True to her word, Bartlett does not try to provide an analysis of Eigner’s poems or summarize his contributions to poetry. Rather, she allows readers, as they make their way through the biography, to piece together for themselves Eigner’s conception of what a poem should be. The takeaway for this particular reader is that Eigner was working hard to distance himself from the romantic conception of poetry inherited from Wordsworth and Whitman. To that end, he eliminated the poet as the center or speaker of the poem and rid the poem of narrative. He also banished traditional tools such as rhyme, rhythm, and standardized forms that reinforced those tendencies. Among his techniques were the dispensation of titles, the avoidance of capitalization and punctuation except in significant situations, the movement away from left alignment, and the priority of white space. Where this ultimately leaves the poem is debatable, but there is no doubting that his influence has found its way into American poetry.  It’s time that there is finally a book that gives Eigner credit for his role by offering a picture of his life.

Sustaining Air is a marvel of a book. For starters, it is extremely readable. Bartlett has wisely kept the chapters short and, despite the highly conceptual nature of the poetry that she is dealing with, has been able to render it intelligible to a wide range of readers through her own very accessible language. This, combined with her use of letters from/about Eigner and excerpts of Eigner’s poems to provide a flavor of a man who was not forthcoming about his life or personal feelings create a text that is bound to keep readers interested. One of my favorite examples of the latter is used during a lengthy stay in the hospital:

Screaming woman

  o god god please god

    beyond wall    angles (p. 100)

Another remarkable aspect of Sustaining Air is guidance to a comprehensive volume of research to which Bartlett gives readers access. The “Biography” at the back of the book provides a list of published and secondary sources as well as a listing of where the archival sources that Bartlett used in preparing the book are housed. The latter will be invaluable to serious Eigner scholars. In addition, as mentioned, the “Notes” at the back provide a chapter-by-chapter chronology of the sources of virtually every claim that the author makes.

Finally, Sustaining Air gives current disabled poets pause to think. In some ways, Eigner’s efforts to distance himself from other disabled people seems antithetical to current attitudes, yet his resistance to being used as inspirational or in narratives of overcoming is strikingly modern. Similarly, while his antipathy for confessional poetry runs against much that is testimonial or missionary in current disability poetry, his acknowledgement of the body as the ultimate source of a poem and his resistance to conforming to normative poetic traditions remain squarely in the forefront of disability poetics.

It is hard to imagine any writer or library with a serious interest in disability poetics not wanting Jennifer Bartlett’s Sustaining Air in their collections. It is essential.

Title: Sustaining Air: The Life of Larry Eigner
Editor: Jennifer Bartlett
ublisher: The University of Alabama Press
Date: 2023

Read Michael Northen’s poems, one of which is about Larry Eigner, and his review of Gretchen Gales’s book, Agora, in this issue of Wordgathering.

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also an editor (with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black) of the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, and (with Annabelle Hayse and Sheila Black) the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press). Along with Camisha L. Jones, Travis Chi Wing Lau, and Naomi Ortiz, he is editing Everyplace on the Earth is Disabled, an anthology of disability poetry to be published by Northwestern University Press in 2025.